With Sunday’s 2-0 victory over Portland, Atlanta United moved into first place in the MLS Eastern Conference and will stay there for more than just a few hours for the first time this season.
The Five Stripes, with 45 points, won’t play again until Friday at Orlando. Philadelphia, also with 45 points but with a lesser goal difference (plus-8 to Atlanta United’s plus-15), won’t play until Saturday when it hosts D.C. United.
“It’s important we ride this momentum,” Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “It’s all good and great to be first. At the same time, there’s a lot of games to be played still. Got a big one on Friday. It will be an absolute battle on the road.”
Finishing in first place is important because that team will get to host conference playoff games in the new single-elimination postseason format. Should LAFC stumble and Atlanta United advance through the postseason, it is on pace to also host its second consecutive MLS Cup. The playoffs begin Oct. 19. The MLS Cup will be held Nov. 10.
» Player ratings: Atlanta United 2, Portland 0
Atlanta United moved into first by winning its third consecutive league game and fifth in sixth. The shutout of the Timbers was its league-leading 12th this season.
“We know that when we are playing confidently and are playing the way we want to play, we are a good team and tough team to play against,” Guzan said. “We aren’t bad.”
It’s been a long trip since when the team was in 12th following a 2-0 loss March 30 at Columbus.
“We have to understand why we are standing right now in this position,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said. “It’s because of how we want to play. If we want to keep this going on we have to be mentally prepared. Don’t get sloppy. If you get sloppy you will get punished.”
Since switching to a 3-5-2 or 3-4-2-1 formation, Atlanta United has won seven of eight games, five by shutout.
“We take a lot of risk but if we are in good shape it’s a fantastic system and we can beat everybody,” de Boer said. “But everybody has to be 100 percent and 100 percent concentrated.”
The winning run has also been helped by the frequency of games. Atlanta United midfielder Julian Gressel said playing once every 3-4 days has helped the team get into a rhythm. The game against the Timbers was the team’s fifth since Aug. 3. It has won each, including defeating Club America to win the Campeones Cup.
The tough path will continue.
After Orlando, Atlanta United will host Minnesota in the U.S. Open Cup championship on Aug. 27 before a showdown at Philadelphia on Aug. 31.
“Pick up three points and it’s going to be hard to keep us off that spot,” Gressel said of Orlando.
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